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Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows

The Democratic presidential field is facing its first real winnowing as more than half a dozen candidates confront the increasingly real possibility that they could be left out of the next primary debate.

The fierce competition for money, air time and polling support is taking its toll on the record field of contenders.

In little more than a week’s time, three candidates — former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperSenate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes Democrats frustrated, GOP jubilant in Senate fight Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeThousands of troops dig in for inauguration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings MORE and Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonLawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot House chairman endorses Michele Flournoy for Biden's Pentagon chief Trump critic: I am not afraid of Trump MORE (D-Mass.) — exited the race after acknowledging the all but insurmountable odds in their bids for the Democratic nomination.

A recent Morning Consult survey underscored the degree to which the candidates struggled to stand out in the crowded field. Despite months on the campaign trail, Inslee and Moulton were the two least-known candidates after the first two series of debates, with 78 percent of Democrats saying they had never heard of Moulton or didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion and 71 percent saying the same of Inslee. 

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At least eight other candidates have found themselves in similar predicaments, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.) and Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanCapitol officer claims MAGA hat was part of ruse to rescue colleagues: report Tim Ryan, Rosa DeLauro giving free coffee and donuts to National Guard stationed at Capitol Agency IGs to probe breakdown in response to Capitol riots MORE (D-Ohio). They appear nowhere close to qualifying for the third primary debate in September and are faced with increasingly daunting polling and fundraising gaps between themselves and the field’s top-tier contenders.

“I think you’ll start to see resources dry up for some. I think you’ll see support and enthusiasm diminish and dry up for some. And that’s going to force them to make some decisions,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said.

Pollsters say the massive field of contenders has had a freezing effect on voters, many of whom are tuning in for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the number of options as the race heads into the fall. 

Some Democrats are eager for the field to shrink, believing that it’s past time for focus to fall on those considered to be top contenders — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration Sidney Powell withdraws 'kraken' lawsuit in Georgia MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Trump leaves changed nation in his wake Cori Bush dismisses concerns of being 'co-opted' by establishment The Memo: Biden prepares for sea of challenges MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing Senate Democrats call on Biden to immediately invoke Defense Production Act Biden consumer bureau pick could take over agency on Inauguration Day MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisScalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag Howard University's marching band to escort Harris at inauguration MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate majority offers Biden new avenues on Trump environmental rollbacks | Democrats eye action on range of climate bills | Biden pushing to cancel Keystone XL pipeline as soon as he takes office: reports Biden rolls out group of deputy secretary nominees On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits MORE.

“It’s healthy for it to dwindle at this point,” Seawright said. “If we continue to bloody ourselves up and drag this out, I think we’ll do ourselves a huge disservice.” 

Hickenlooper has already launched a new campaign for the Senate, and Inslee will seek reelection to a third term as governor. Their early exits from the presidential field could ramp up pressure on some of the other low-polling contenders to follow suit. 

“Hickenlooper and Inslee had to get out because they had other races to run and win,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who has endorsed Harris in the primary contest.

Democrats badly want to take over the Senate, and at least two long-shot presidential contenders — Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden's identity politics do a disservice to his nominees Senate Democrat: Party's message to rural voters is 'really flawed' Ducey to lead Republican governors MORE and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — are viewed as top tier Senate candidates in their states with potential to beat the GOP incumbents.

But it’s possible that the massive field of contenders and the chaotic nature of the race could keep many long shots in, with the hope that anything could happen for those left standing when votes are cast.

“It’s an odd year, unlike any I’ve seen in my political life,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose upstart campaign was one of the biggest surprises of the 2004 Democratic primary.

“It’s way too early to tell who might win,” Dean continued. “We might be waiting until the Iowa caucuses for the apple cart to be upset, so my advice to candidates, even if you don’t make the next debate, so what? Even if you finish fourth in Iowa, you could still punch your ticket in South Carolina or Nevada. You’ve got a shot, and there’s an awfully long way to go.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that the Democratic field is on the cusp of truly narrowing. Sellers said that it would take one of the race’s higher-profile contenders — O’Rourke or Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: 12 removed from National Guard inauguration security | Austin backs lifting transgender ban Biden Pentagon pick supports lifting transgender military ban Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.), for example — dropping out to signal a real winnowing. 

“You have individuals who were contenders to be president of the United States when they announced –  the Gillibrands of the world, the Betos of the world. Until they decide to get out, it’s not a real winnowing,” Sellers said.

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Only 10 to 12 Democrats will likely qualify for the September debate. But at least eight others have little chance of making it: Bullock; Delaney; Ryan; Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetTop Democrat pushes for tying unemployment insurance to economic conditions 50-50 Senate opens the door to solutions outlasting Trump's moment of violence Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers MORE (D-Colo.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioOvernight Health Care: US passes 400,000 coronavirus deaths | How Biden HHS pick could make history | De Blasio says NYC will run out of COVID-19 vaccine this week De Blasio: New York City will run out of COVID-19 vaccine this week without resupply The Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? MORE; author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses America's "soulless ethos" Marianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 MORE; Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE; and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

But some of those who don’t make the stage could still qualify for the fourth debate in October, likely keeping many candidates in the race for at least a few more months.

Two other candidates — billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerTom SteyerOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Late donor surges push election spending projections to new heights MORE and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (D-Hawaii) — are on the verge of qualifying for the September debate but still need to meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirement that candidates register at least 2 percent in four approved polls to secure their spots on stage.

Missing out on the next primary debate could come at a cost. Televised debates offer candidates the chance to pitch themselves in front of a national audience, and several contenders have said that they saw groundswells of support after appearing on the debate stage.

"If your campaign hasn't qualified for the third, you're likely not getting a lot of national coverage already," said Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic consultant and the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. "So now you're missing out on the one chance to have national coverage, to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens."

Despite the recent exits from the race and the looming debate qualifying deadline, some candidates insist that they will keep going. 

Delaney, who has been running for the Democratic nomination for over two years but whose candidacy has struggled to gain traction, told Boston public radio station WGBH on Thursday that he believes his odds will improve as the field narrows.

“I’m going to be in the race. I’m staying in the race,” he said. “The field gets smaller, the [pool of] interested Democrats gets larger, and they become kind of a more moderate thing, and that’s where I think all the work we’ve done is going to start paying off.”